Pedal power forges ahead in Sao Paulo's famous Avenida Paulista

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A man on a bicycle tries out the new cycle lane on Paulista Avenue
Image caption,
The new bike lane runs along Avenida Paulista and is 2.7km (1.7 miles) long

The opening of a bike lane in one of the most famous thoroughfares of Latin America this weekend symbolises a change of heart over attitudes to transport, campaigners say.

The distinctive red lane has been built in Avenida Paulista, in the heart of Sao Paulo.

The Brazilian city has more than 5.6 million cars and is famous the world over for its traffic congestion.

The initiative is part of a project backed by the city's mayor, Fernando Haddad.

Image caption,
Mayor Fernando Haddad (fourth from right) tried out one of the new lanes for himself

Mr Haddad pledged to expand Sao Paulo's existing network of bike lanes from 64.7km (40 miles) to 400km in length by 2016.

But the project is not without controversy.

Critics said the project was poorly planned and consultation had been inadequate, while others argued the level of demand did not justify the expense and disruption.

Heated issue

Bike lanes have been a matter of sometimes heated debate in Sao Paulo since 1975 when the first lane was constructed, only to be replaced 15 years later with a tunnel for cars.

Image source, Reuters
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Sao Paulo is infamous for the volume of its car traffic

Three proposals to create a network of bike lanes in the last 30 years never came to fruition.

But backing from the city authorities seems to have given cyclist renewed impetus.

"Many people wanted to use bikes but didn't because they were afraid. We want to guarantee the cyclists' safety. It's their right," Sao Paulo Transport Secretary Jilmar Tatto explained the city hall's support for the lanes.

An opinion poll conducted by DataFolha Institute in February suggested 66% of residents backed the policy.

More than half of those questioned said they used a bike at least once a week, while 13% said that they never used one.

Image caption,
Cyclists argued that having dedicated lanes for bikes would save lives

Twenty-year-old student Camille Veronese is one of those who thinks the lanes will make a difference.

"I've seen many accidents. They took too long to create more lanes. This will make it safer to ride a bike."

Fifty-year-old taxi driver Marcos Segatin thinks the measure will improve traffic, but argues that "they did this too fast, with a few mistakes, but it will be an alternative [mode of] transport".

Symbolic stretch

In the last year, 238km of new bike lanes were built in Sao Paulo, but no stretch is as symbolic as the 2.7km-long lane set to open on Sunday on Avenida Paulista.

The avenue, once lined with the homes of Brazil's rich coffee barons, is now a busy commercial area.

Thirteen years ago a group of cyclists began a protest known as "Bicicletada" occupying part of Avenida Paulista to demand investment in modes of transport other than Sao Paulo's ubiquitous cars.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Cyclists blocked Avenida Paulista as part of the Bicicletada protest
Image source, Getty Images
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They wanted to draw attention to the dangers facing cyclists and the lack of safe lanes

"Back then drivers used to honk and shout at us to get off the road and would try to scare us by driving by very close", says Odir Junior, 45, one of those who took part in those early protests.

He says the new lane is a "turning point for the city".

"It took a lot of sweat, tears and blood to get here," he says, referring to the deaths of three cyclists and a fourth who lost his arm on Paulista over the last five years.

Uphill struggle

Right up to the last moment, though, it was not clear if the project would go ahead as opponents argued that the feasibility studies had been inadequate.

In the end though, legal attempts to stop the lane from opening failed.

When the news that the lane would go ahead was announced in March, thousands of cyclists protesting at the time on Avenida Paulista cheered and applauded, chanting "fewer cars, more bikes".

Image caption,
Cyclists welcomed the news that the legal attempts to block the bike lane had failed

Sao Paulo also won plaudits from the New-York based NGO Institute of Transportation Development Policy, which awarded it its Sustainable Transport Award.

Clarisse Linke, the institute's executive director in Brazil, said they recognised the efforts of cities "that have the courage to try to change".

Sao Paulo's current city officials back the bike lanes, but some worry that this could change after the 2016 municipal elections.

"There is always the risk that the next mayor could represent a setback but we will be watching and demanding improvements," says Daniel Gut, who heads the city's main cyclists' association, Ciclocidade.

Image caption,
Three cyclists have died on Paulista Avenue over the past five years and one lost an arm in an accident

But Andrea Matarazzo, who leads the main opposition group in Sao Paulo City Hall, says that if elected, he would improve rather than get rid of the bike lanes.

"I'll continue to implement them, increasing their total extension, but with public debate, inviting the city's residents to give their opinions, something the current mayor didn't do", he says.

For the moment, however, one of Latin America's most famous avenues now has a distinctively bike friendly character, with pedal power holding its own in a city famous for its gridlock of cars.